When Dietrich Kalteis’ Zero Avenue came out in 2017, I remarked on The Rap Sheet that I’d once heard author Owen Laukannen describe Kalteis’ writing as being like “jazz on the page.” If you want to boil Kalteis’ work down very tightly, for me descriptions just don’t get any better than that.
Kalteis’ voice is taut, tight, and if it were any more noir, it would be too dark to see. With all of that, there is a graceful muscularity to his writing. And a sparseness that reminds one of jazz, as well.
In Kalteis’ latest book, Poughkeepsie Shuffle (ECW) that increasingly well known voice is pushed to new darkness.
This time out we are in Toronto, Canada in the mid-1980s where a desperate used car salesman finds himself involved in an easy money scheme to smuggle guns into Canada inside used cars coming from upstate New York. Our hero — one Jeff Nicols: strong of conviction, weak of character — go reluctantly but he still goes, getting in deeper and deeper, even while we watch.
Near the eve of the publication of Poughkeepsie Shuffle we got Kalteis to tell us about his hopes and dreams and, most importantly, his new book as well as what might happen next.
January Magazine: Tell us about your new book.
Dietrich Kalteis: Poughkeepsie Shuffle is the story of Jeff Nichols, a former inmate of Toronto’s infamous Don Jail. After getting his release, he tries to rekindle a relationship with his ex, Ann Ryan. Wanting to make his way in the world, Jeff takes a job at a used car lot which isn’t enough to keep them afloat. So, when the lure of easy money comes along, he gets mixed up in a smuggling ring that runs guns across the border from the U.S. The trouble is Jeff’s the kind of guy who doesn’t let the lessons of past mistakes get in the way of a good score. And as things spin out of control, he hangs on, trying to hit the motherlode.
What is it about the setting of Poughkeepsie Shuffle that made you want to spend fictional time there?
Poughkeepsie is this picturesque town along the Hudson River in New York state, about a seven-hour car ride southeast from Toronto. I’ve driven through the area a few times, and it’s a beautiful place with a lot of history. I thought its small size and peaceful setting offered a good fictitious base for an operation smuggling guns into Canada. Plus, it’s got the kind of name just begging to be used for the title of a novel.
The story’s also set north of the border in Toronto, which is where I grew up. I wanted to recreate it the way I remember it back in the mid-1980s. It was a grittier, character-filled place before the meat packing plants started giving way to gentrification, and the rail lines that once lined the land below Front Street started disappearing, leaving behind much of its industrial heritage.
Located across the lake from Niagara and Buffalo, Toronto has easy access to the U.S., making it an ideal setting for smuggling. After reading an article a few years ago about the bust of a gunrunning ring operating between upstate New York and Ontario I had the spark for the story. And an increase in gang violence around that time also worked into the story, heightening the danger for Jeff delivering guns to warring gangs and selling to the highest bidder.
What comes first, your characters or your stories?
When I think of a particular scene, I imagine the type of character I’d like to see in that situation. As the story develops so does the character, and as things move along, the person’s true nature gets fleshed out, and he or she moves the story in directions based on who they are. So, it’s a bit of both, I get a rough idea for the story without really knowing where it’s going to go, then I think of the main characters. Then I just see what happens.
Tell us about where you work. What is your present or ideal workspace?
I’ve got a nice set up, a great computer and lots of music. It’s a private space and my desk is next to a big window, and outside there are woods all around. And the coffee maker’s just 20 feet away. The only thing that would top this would be sitting on the slope at the beach in Carmel with a laptop and a latte.
Which one of your characters is the most like you? And the least?
I wrote this one in first person from Jeff Nichol’s point of view, and while Jeff and I aren’t alike in most ways, I can empathize with him. And it was fun putting myself in the shoes of a guy willing to break a few rules in pursuit of easy money. Sometimes he’s clever, and other times he’s just desperate, and I hope readers will cheer him on, hoping that if he doesn’t win, he’ll at least survive. The guy I think I’m least like is Ted Bracey, the owner of the car lot where Jeff works. He’s a cold, manipulative son of a bitch who doesn’t care for anybody but himself.
I’ll mention that a few of the sub characters were loosely based on real people I met along the way, at least I borrowed a few quirks and ticks. There was the man who went to South America and stumbled onto what he was sure was a miracle cure for hair restoration. Then there’s the Conway character who I based on a guy who wanted to teach the world to sing. And Archie, the Elvis impersonator, was based on an Elvis I met one morning in a copy shop in Vancouver. There he was in shorts and flip flops — with morning-after hair and sideburns, looking like he was coming off a rhinestoned night — running off a handful of flyers for an upcoming gig.
Do you remember the first story you wrote? Tell us about it.
I wrote a longhand draft of an untitled novel about a runaway when I was in my teens. I never did anything with it, but I wish I had that draft now, because terrible or not, it would be fun to read. Also, I started writing a few short stories about 25 years ago, and the first was a touching one about a father and his son called On Monday. I rewrote it a few years back, and it ended up being published in Joyful.
What writer do you think has had the greatest influence on your work? Who do you love the most?
I’ve been reading since I was a kid, and I still remember some of the images from the novels by Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Harper Lee and Rudyard Kipling. And I suppose they all played a part in me wanting to make up my own stories. And they sure made me want to keep reading. As time rolled on I read the classics by Hemingway and Steinbeck and later J.D. Salinger, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie. As far as crime fiction, I love Elmore Leonard’s stories, and there’s George V. Higgins, James Crumley and Charles Willeford. Of the crime writers working today I find inspiration in the books by Don Winslow, George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Carl Hiaasen.
Is it less or more difficult being a writer now than it was 20 years ago? Why?
Long after that runaway story, I took a stab at a first novel, cranking it out on a self-correcting typewriter. There I was surrounded by discarded balls of paper, and I had margin notes and strike-outs all over the place. I retyped parts, cut them out and pasted them over old parts. Bottles of Wite-out and miles of correcting ribbon later, I had this thick stack of pages, some resembling ransom notes. I had the works photocopied, stuffed the pages into a big envelope and submitted it to a publishing house. Then I waited. Traditional publishing seemed to be the only real way to go, as self-publishing was more or less taboo back then. Nowadays, computers and the internet make correcting, editing, researching and submitting a breeze.
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what?
Always. For me, there’s a kind of silence in the music. When I put on my headphones, I cut out all that real-life white noise: ringing phones, door bells, sirens and car horns. And I play what works with the scene I’m writing. Music is a great way for me to slip into the story, and for Poughkeepsie Shuffle there was a lot of Springsteen, Zevon and Thorogood, stuff like that.
What are you working on now?
The next one’s complete, due for release next year by ECW Press. It’s called Call Down the Thunder, and the story centers around a young married couple who come up with a hell of a way to survive the hard times during the dustbowl days of Kansas. Right now, I’m halfway through a new story about a guy who’s on the run after stealing a gangster’s money and girlfriend. ◊
Linda L. Richards is an author and journalist and the founding editor of January Magazine.